A Sermon Based on James 1:17-27, the last sermon of our "Bless You" series.
The next time someone wants to tell you "Christianity is not a religion, it's a relationship," drop some James in their lap and walk away. If they say, "Oh, and I think I can worship God just fine by getting out into nature," well then highlight this passage before you go. James doesn't have time for that kind of talk - James isn't much in to talk, at all really. James' unrelenting focus is not on what we feel, or even what we think. James cares about what we do. So much so that the founder of the Protestant movement, Martin Luther, semi-seriously considered dropping the book of James from the Bible. In the end, Luther decided against it. Luther would rather read a Bible that spoke truth than a bible that agreed with him. And so... We still have to deal with James and his insistence that it matters what we do: "True religion that is undefiled is this, to look after widows and orphans in distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." Of course, it's not just James - all through the Scriptures we find evidence that what we do affects how we are with God. I think of Jesus' parable in Matthew 25 describing the day of judgment when God has the crowd before the throne and says to one group:
Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.
When I say that the scriptures insist that God cares about what we do, there’s a secondary implication. God seems to say much more about what we do than about what we don’t do. Which is to say, God doesn’t ask us to be nice. Now the word nice is one of those words that we use in all sorts of ways, but in my experience “nice” is a word we most often use to describe what didn’t happen.
How was your meal? It was nice. Which means it wasn’t savory or delicious or wretched or too salty. It was nice. I’m a nice guy. Which means, I don’t shout, don’t lose my temper. It doesn't necessarily mean that I am kind either – I’m not known for going out of my way, but I’m nice, I try not to be a bother.
6 years ago the sociologist Christian Smith from UNC-Chapel Hill interviewed more than 3,000 teenagers in churches and conluded that the vast majority of them shared assumptions that aren’t particularly Christian, they’re just… nice. Smith said these beliefs should really have their own name, and so he called them Moral Therapeutic Deism: The five assumptions of MTD are this 1) A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth 2) God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other. 3) The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself. 4) God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem. 5) Good people go to heaven when they die.
You’ll notice there’s nothing in there about Jesus being Lord, or about what James says to us today about perservering in the perfect law, the law of liberty. There’s nothing about receiving the Word of God, and nothing about going out and doing something to obey that word once we have heard. There’s nothing, for example, about humbly offering our ourselves through prayer, presence, gifts, and service. Kenda Creasy Dean followed up on this study and surveyed the church’s the teenagers came from and made this sobering remark. She said, “Our youth did not become Moral Therapeutic Deists because the church was a bad teacher. Rather, most of these youth became Moral Therapeutic Deists because that is exactly what their churches taught them." Throughout these last several weeks, we have been trying to think of concrete ways that our church can do something, specifically how we can bless others. We have blessed teachers and students, our military and their families; we’ve blessed the strangers and newomers and we’ve blessed the poor and the hungry. We’ve don’t do this because we want to feel good about ourselves – we do this because the more we seek after God, the more we look beyond ourselves. The Methodist Bishop Dick Wills once wrote the story of how he and his congregation were transformed by the Holy Spirit – Wills says that the change began when they stopped praying for God to bless what they were doing, and instead they started asking, “God make us a part of what you choose to bless.”
And throughout the Scriptures, there are few groups that God more consistently chooses to bless than the “orphans and widows.” Some older translations use the word “Fatherless” rather than orphan, which might be a narrow translation, but it is helpful because it makes clear how the two - the orphans and the widows - were connected in biblical eras. Remember that the people of Israel came up as a fundamentally agricultural people – their prosperity and their civic order were tied entirely to the land. And of course, in agriculture you can’t keep endlessly dividing the land between your descendants without making the individual plots too small for farming. Rather than endlessly divide and diminish their wealth, the people of Israel were organized to preserve the integrity of the land. A family property could only pass to male heirs, and the firstborn male got a larger portion. If a family was bereft of its only adult male, it lost its connection to the land, and all of the rights and privileges that came from being a landowner. This was more obvious at some times than in others – in the Old Testament, we learn that Deborah was the greatest of all Israel’s judges, but by the time of Jesus, many legal authorities said a woman was not even allowed to give testimony in court. If she had no husband or father to speak for her, a woman or a child was legally voiceless. (By the way, that’s part of what made it such a world-changing scandal when the first witnesss to the resurrection - the ones on whose testimony the good news depended - were all women.)
And yet, the Bible is full of signs that God has a particular interest in the very people that had the least power in their culture. Hagar and Ishmael, Ruth and Naomi, the widows of Zarephath and Shunem – these widows and orphans have some of the most personal and intimate encounters with God in all of scripture. Most of the Old Testament miracles are directly related to saving the whole people of Israel, but each of these encounters God takes time to care for these particular people for no other purpose except to honor them and bless them. The first chapter of the book of Isaiah says “Learn to do right, seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” Ezekiel, Malachi, Zechariah, Jeremiah and Hosea all declare that God is the special father to the fatherless and defender of the widows. And all of these prophets condemn Israel for failing to care for them as they ought. And here in James, we find the Old Testament ways still apply – true religion, true devotion is this that we care for the orphans and the widows. If you want to know God – you better hang out with those whom God is choosing to bless.
In our own day of course, our larger society has made great strides in granting power to those who were once powerless – we no longer reserve legal standing or property for men only. But the more things change… And the more we are of everything that continues to be lost when a basic family relationship is lost or broken. And the less tightly we connect our aid with one’s legal standing, or property, the more broadly we can see and embrace the pain of loss in all our neighbors. To put it simply, we can open our eyes to the needs of widowers as much as widows, and we can give a broader view to who God is choosing to bless. We make this kind of care a fundamental part of who we are. I have and aunt and uncle in Mississippi, their church insists that anyone who serves on the church’s leadership board must also “adopt” a and visit regularly a member of the church who has no local family. Many of you know about the United Methodist Children’s home, which we support every year, and which now does most of its work in training and supporting foster families for kids who might once or otherwise gone to group facilities. This week, I got an email from Charlotte Thomas who runs the Okaloosa County office of the Children’s home. She said “I subscribe to your church’s News and Sermons and I saw that this Sunday will be the blessing of the widows and orphans, and I wondered if you could share that there continues to be a gret need for foster homes in our county. We don’t typically think of foster children as orphans, but these children don’t have anyone else. Each home that receives a child is receiving a gift.” How many homes is children is God trying to bless through us today? When we look with God’s eyes, we might even begin thinking of family-less children before they are even born. When asked for her views on abortion, Mother Teresa once famously said “A child is a gift from God, if you do not want him, bring him to me.” That is a faith that does something, a religion that does something. If we believe every child is a blessing, we should be using every vote, every word, every opportunity we have to make the bless the life of child and mother. When I came to Crestview, I set out to visit several of our local schools and I always asked the principals and superindent that I met the same question. “How can our church bless you.” They all gave me the same answer. They said we need volunteers for our mentoring programs. If someone from your church gave one hour a week to a child, it might be the most stable relationship that child experiences, and it could change their life forever, and we just don’t have enough mentors to meet our need.
We believe not only in hearing the word, but in doing. We also believe that when we are all doing the work of God, God can do great things without limit. At our last church council meeting I gave this challenge – if you see a need, start something. Be the blessing that God has planted in your imagination. God’s work isn’t done when you’ve heard a word – grace happens when you do something about it. Who will you bless, how will you bless them? This is the time to pray, this is the time to listen, this is the time to resolve that your actions will say to the world, bless you. And I promise, when we become doers of the word, that will make the beginning of a beautiful relationship.